The LEAPS Process, Part II, Empathize

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The second step of the LEAPS process is Empathize.

Empathy does not necessarily mean agreement. It means that you have a genuine concern about how another person is feeling, and a desire to understand the reasons for that feeling, even if you sharply disagree with that person.

This is especially important if the other person is expressing emotion that you don’t consider to be appropriate for the situation. A case in point — there was a man on an airline flight who was distant and borderline rude to his seat-mate who had attempted to engage him in conversation, and was pointedly told, “I don’t want to talk to you.” When they got off the plane, the seat-mate overheard a tearful exchange between the man and some family members who had come to take him home. He had rushed home early from a business trip because his wife had been killed in an automobile collision. That explained the curtness, isolation, and short temper.

To use empathy in a conflict solution, it is not enough to just observe and try to determine the other person’s feelings. Empathy works best when actively expressed. Another case in point — ever encountered a surly waitress? Waiting tables for a living is a really tough job (I waited tables when I was in college. It’s not the hardest job I ever held, but it comes close.), so it’s not particularly unusual to encounter a person in that situation who’s had a bad day, and is having a hard time not showing it. I recall a situation where I observed a waitress being very short and fussy with another customer, and when she came over to my table, she blurted out, “Ok, whaddayou want?” in a tone that definitely carried an undercurrent of anger. I replied, “Oh, we’re not in a hurry, and it looks like you are having a bad day. So go ahead and look after your other customers, and we’ll be ready in a bit.”

It was like I flipped a switch. I had pointed out (gently) that I had observed behavior that was very probably going to cost her money, and maybe even her job, and I had expressed empathy by suggesting that maybe she was experiencing some unusual stress and telling her that I was cutting her some slack. Her attitude changed instantly, and her demeanor became very helpful and pleasant. When she left our table, she went to the other customer that she had treated rudely, and apologized. When we did order, she was attentive, and eager to make sure we were properly served.

Now, suppose that instead of that response, I had come back with something equally (or more) rude, like, “Well, there goes your tip, bitch.” It is unlikely that would have gotten the desired result.

That clearly illustrates how much difference an expression of empathy can make in a potential conflict situation. I have seen situations where empathy was used (by someone more skilled at it than I am) to calm a person who was already so angry that he was beyond reasoning. It really is possible to establish a bit of a rapport with someone who is angry with you.

Another way to express empathy is to ask questions. There is, of course, a right way and a wrong way to do that, which I will discuss in the next post.

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